My suspicion is that, like me, most of you want to know that after you die that there is more to life after death than your personal existence. Your hope is that it is life after death with others, with the people you have loved in this life. It is as much about reunion as it is about not wanting to think that you might come to an end.
The thing is that life after death was not a part of what the Sadducees believed. When you died you died and you returned to the dust from which you were made. As Jesus comes closer to the final confrontation with the Temple authorities I suspect the Sadducees ask Jesus this question to make a mockery of the notion of resurrection. They also want find out whether Jesus agrees with them or with the scribes, who believed in resurrection.
Jesus’ response to the question, as is often the case, contains layers of meaning which uncover some bigger concepts. Firstly, Jesus points to an intimacy of relationship with one another that transcends any covenantal or biological relationships that we have with one another in this life. More than that, Jesus answer indicates our relationship with God is not bound by life and death and, the implication is, nor are the relationships that we have.
To understand this a little better requires delving into the complex question that the Sadducees ask and highlighting a few pertinent issues.
The story that the Sadducees describe, with seven brothers successively dying and, as they do so, passing the wife of the first brother on. This reflects a particular understanding of women, of marriage and of perpetuating one’s existence.
In the ancient world a woman, or a girl, was recognised as belonging to a man, either a father or a husband. The law about marrying the wife of a deceased brother when no child had been produced is, in part, about the protection of a woman. The brother almost inherits her as his responsibility. Yet, the issue of childlessness in the question is important as well, and needs a bit of exploration.
For the Sadducees and for earlier Jews, who did not have a belief in resurrection, a man perpetuated his existence through his sons. I suspect this is one of the reasons that the genealogies in the scriptures, as boring as they may sound to us, are so important. They represent the ongoing life of the individuals, in the genealogy, through the next generation.
So, here are two important things to note. Women are the property of men to be passed on to be protected like assets. And, children produced through marriage create the opportunity for an ongoing existence beyond death, even when there is no resurrection.
The question that the Sadducees are asking is quite nuanced because the situation they are describing involve the transfer of a covenantal relationship as a way of creating the opportunity for an ongoing existence without resurrection. That is to say the aim of the brothers continuing this process of marrying this woman is about giving the first brother a chance of ongoing existence by producing an heir.
If, however, resurrection occurs, the question the Sadducees want to know is, ‘who owns the woman now?’
All of this sounds a bit strange to us because we do not view women or the covenant of marriage in this way anymore. This form of Biblical marriage described in this passage is not one that we hold on to.
So, what does Jesus do with this complex question? How does he answer the question concerning women, marriage, death and resurrection?
There are two parts to Jesus answer and both confront the Sadducees and possibly even confound the Scribes as well.
In the first part his answer Jesus says, “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” The covenant of marriage is located as an aspect of life in this world. After we die, if we live in the resurrection, marriage is no longer required.
I do not think Jesus is devaluing marriage in this life or the relationships that we forge in this way. Rather, it is my feeling that Jesus is saying that, in the resurrection life there is no need to protect women through marriage nor to produce heirs to perpetuate your existence. If this is the case then the covenant of marriage ceases to carry its original intent. Marriage is obsolete.
Why? The intimacy of relationships in the resurrected life, with God and with each other, somehow transcends both the biological and covenantal ties we make during our limited earthly span.
When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come on earth now as in heaven,” we express a desire to begin to enter into the realm of those relationships now. Jesus himself, when he is told his mother and brothers are outside, indicates that those around him are his mother and brothers. We also know that there is a long history in the church of baptised people calling each other brother and sister. It has especially been a feature of monastic communities and of the Anabaptist communities.
This is not to say we are not going to see our loved ones but rather I think indicates a new and transformed intimacy with them. Of course, none of us have been beyond the boundary of death to understand or encounter any of this. This is all a matter of faith. Yet Jesus words appear to indicate that the need for marriage disappears in resurrection life even though the relationship might continue in a richer and more divine way.
Which brings me to Jesus second point. Jesus takes his audience back to the story of the burning bush and indicates that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
For to God all of them are alive!
Jesus’ assertion is that God relates to those who have died as if they are alive. Death does not diminish the relationship that God has with them, anymore than our earthly existence could diminish God’s relationship with us. There is no barrier between life and death for God.
Many people across the world celebrated the breaking down of the barriers between life and death this week. Halloween, All Souls Day, All Saints Day, and the Day of the Dead all express the translucence of the barrier between the living and the dead. This week Lucy took a picture to school of my mother who died nearly four years ago to share with her Spanish class as they learnt about the Day of Dead.
These celebrations, which are found all around the world, within and beyond the Christian religion, do more than simply remember the dead but recognise an ongoing presence and relationship with them.
Part of the Christian teaching about death is that if we die in Christ we will also rise with him. Our life and are death are hidden in Christ, as we are joined with him through the power of the Holy Spirit. The union that we have we Jesus extends into a unity we have with one another, living and dead. Paul describes the cloud of witness, or communion of saints, that gather around us as we traverse our way through life, and as we celebrate our life in Christ together.
There is a sense whenever we gather and enter into this space of worship we surrounded by those whom we love and whose lives, like ours, were hidden in Christ. The Orthodox symbolise this beautifully in the architecture of their buildings. If you have the opportunity to go into somewhere like St Georges at West End I highly recommend it.
What you would see is this. In the centre of the domed ceiling is an icon of Jesus, a painting. Jesus descending to be with his people. Surrounding Jesus are his disciples, then as you move down the walls Saints. The presence of Christ and the communion of saints is visually represented in the imagery of the church building.
Given this reflection on God being God of the living and relating to those who have gone before and their presence with, this us has come to feel strongest for me as we share in communion, Christ’s eternal feast, sharing bread and wine. From the very earliest days the church has held to an understanding the Jesus is with us when we gather and that Jesus is present in the elements of bread and wine. Though I may be physically presiding it is my conviction that Jesus is our host.
A few years back a woman in one of my congregations said she could still hear her husband singing and had a sense of his presence as she worshipped. For me there was no questioning of this experience it was an expression and witness of precisely what I have been talking about. The communion of saints gathered.
Whilst I have not had such a strong experience of what that person described I have contemplated on this idea that alongside me in worship, but especially at the Eucharistic feast, is my mother, my grandparents, loved members of congregations I have been part of, the Wesley brothers, Luther, Calvin, Augustine, John Chrysostom, the disciples and so on. The cloud of witnesses gather with us. For God is the God of the living.
Jesus answer to the Sadducees tricky conundrum leads us into a challenging place of mystery. God’s relationship with us transcends any intimacy that we can know or express. In the life to come as we become more like Jesus, that is to say more like God, the intimacy of our relationships with each other will also be expanded into new realms. Yet, as we await the fullness of the intimacy, in this life our own relationships, including marriage and children, help us to understand God’s love better. Finally, in our concern about those who have already died we can find comfort in the knowledge that God relates to all as if they are still alive.